strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

  • Categories

  • Wall of the Dead

Making Species Matter with Colorful Names

Posted by Richard Conniff on June 11, 2011

Britain’s The Guardian is running its second annual contest–a very curious contest–to give evocative “common” names to species now known only by their scientific names.

Last year, for instance, readers turned Megapenthes lugens into the Queen’s executioner beetle, re-named Lucernariopsis cruxmelitensis as Mab’s lantern beetle, and brought Arrhis phyllonyx to life as St John’s jellyfish.

I like scientific names.  Common, or local, names can vary from one town to the next.  But scientific names allow people in different regions, and different countries, to know whether or not they are talking about the same species.

That said, British naturalist Richard Mabey, writing in The Guardian, makes a nice case for the poetry of those local names.

I once had an amicable debate with the late John Fowles about the naming of nature. Behind his postmodern novelist’s persona, Fowles was a skilled, fastidious and almost old-fashioned naturalist, who greatly preferred robust English tags to the “dark science” of Latin. He warmed to the walnut orb-weaver (a spider) but not Nuctenea umbratica. But he was flirting with Zen Buddhism at the time, one of whose axioms is that names are “a pane of smoked glass between us and reality”. I disagreed. I’ve always felt that naming a plant or a creature is a fundamental gesture of respect towards its individuality, its distinction from the generalised green blur. It’s the universal first step in beginning a relationship: “What’s your name?” …

Writers may use common names imaginatively, but they rarely invent them. In that ongoing process we are all poets, and the immense lexicon of popular names for our fellow beings is the product of a communal enterprise that stretches back thousands of years. As well as Hernshaw, the heron has had more than 30 local names in Britain, including hegrie (Shetland), moll hern (Midlands), frank (from the bird’s call – Suffolk), longie crane (Pembroke). Dandelion has at least 50, including clocks and watches, conquer more, devil’s milk plant (from its white latex), four o’clock, golden suns, lion’s teeth, piss-a-bed (the leaves are a renowned diuretic), priest’s crown, wet-weed, wishes.

Common names are a kind of time capsule, a record of the powers of observation and literary inventiveness of ordinary people. They log resemblances, uses, sounds, mythic associations, smells, seasonal appearances, kids’ games, superstitions, habitats. They’re witty, concise, evocative, sometimes even satirical. The great champion and hedge-theorist of vernacular names was the 19th-century “peasant” poet John Clare  …

Clare’s respect for the authenticity of local language meant that he probably never made up a name himself. But in the heyday of natural history between the 18th and 19th centuries there was a frenzy of secular baptisms by clergymen, squires and every other kind of learned amateur with time on their hands. This was the period when many of our butterflies got their standard common names. Painted lady derived from the heavily made-up belles of the 18th century. Its wings have a warm flesh-tone and are tipped with mascara-like stripes. Red admiral (also the alderman) was coined because the patterning of its wings (patches plus stripes) resembles a naval flag.

Mother Shipton Moth

The common names of moths – there are more than 2,000 British species, few of which had any names at all before the 18th century – have been more functionally descriptive (but rarely dull), and often based on minute differential markings. The Hebrew character is named from a dark hieroglyph on its forewing. Mother Shipton carries the image of an old witch with a hooked nose on its wings. (The original, famously ugly Mother Shipton lived in a cave in Yorkshire.) The litany of moths whose caterpillars feed on species of willow (aka withy, sallies, saugh, popple, cat’s-tails) reads like a found poem about sensual pleasure: angle shades, autumn green carpet, canary-shouldered thorn, coxcomb prominent, dark dagger, dingy mocha, engrailed, flounced chestnut, pale brinded beauty, ruddy highflyer …

Scientists quite rightly insist that universal Latin names (though these are unstable now) are essential if people from different cultures and languages are to understand each other. But it’s in the common English names that the real richness and fascination lie. Here are wild organisms’ hues, habits, habitats, histories, and humans’ histories and curiosity, too. It’s not stretching meanings to say that the vernacular lexicon is part of the ecosystem, a living and growing web which links us with all other species.

2 Responses to “Making Species Matter with Colorful Names”

  1. […] few weeks ago, I mentioned the naming contest sponsored by The Guardian in the UK, which invites readers to give colorful “common” […]

  2. […] written here before about a British contest to give colorful common names to species now known only by their cumbersome scientific […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s